In the twilight world of Hindi films about politics, there’s always an election about to take place, which justifies the murderous mayhem that ensues. For a film that has liberal hearts bleeding for an innocent butcher slaughtered during a riot, Sudhir Mishra’s Afwaah has an inordinately high body count. (The visual of the man begging for mercy with folded hands is deliberately reminiscent of that famous photo from the Gujarat riots.)

While Mishra’s previous political films like Yeh Woh Manzil To Nahin and Hazaron Khwahishein Aisi were ruminations on the involvement of youth in grassroot causes, Afwaah seems to have been made to fit an agenda, to poke the sleeping lion in its cage without really stepping close enough to get harmed.

Most of the story takes place over one night, revisiting the format of Mishra’s thriller Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin. Mishra does make some valid points about fake news and viral tweets going out of control. But afwaah means rumour, which is actually quite different from spreading doctored videos.

The two people caught in the web woven by a ruthless bunch are Rahab Ahmad (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the American-returned, upper-class Muslim man who has the superior and mostly naive idea that his campus talks are making a difference, and Nivedita Singh (Bhumi Pednekar), the daughter of a politician. Nivedita is being forced to marry Vikram (Sumeet Vyas) as part of a political alliance.

Vikram’s election rally had ended in the stone-pelting riot and the on-camera murder of the butcher. A horrified Nivedita runs away from home, with Vikram’s men in pursuit. When Rahab intervenes, he enters a nightmare of violence. Vikram spins Nivedita’s rescue asa “Love jihad” story.

In order to distance himself from the riot, Vikram had previously ordered the corrupt cop Tomar (Sumeet Kaul) to kill his henchman Chandan (Sharib Hashmi). Chandan dodges the bullet, leading to multiple chases (cinematographer Mauricio Vidal tries with limited success to capture the menace of the landscape in artificially illuminated darkness). The script, by Mishra with Shiv Shankar Bajpai and Nisarg Mehta, throws up several rings in the air, some of which deflect from the main issue.

Mishra points fingers at the intelligentsia, which isn’t entirely fair, since conscientious citizens do protest against communalism. The irresponsible media and motivated political parties are let off the hook. The chaos has patriarchal rather than communal origins.

There is a satirical scene towards the end – the film needed more of this cheeky humour. To give credit where due, Mishra’s two major female characters, Nividita and an exploited female cop (TJ Bhanu), give it back with aplomb. The actors are adequate – no surprises, no stand-out performance.

A filmmaker entering the maze of north Indian skullduggery and the tinder-box nature of mob violence should keep in mind the copious amounts of similar content on streaming platforms, if the Afwaah’s deja vu is to be avoided.

Afwaah (2023).